• JTF

Napa Part II: From Top to Bottom


The day begins quietly, the control system has proven to be not only a novelty but an actual enhancement to the experience. The birds are chirping outside and with the click of a button. The light merges the inside and out into a cohesive frame. It is early, and the morning is cool, yet it is a perfect temperature for some coffee by the fire.

French presses are one of the simplest pleasures anyone can have in the morning, and if the grind is right, then it is an authentic experience. Las Alcobas deliver the goods when it comes to coffee, also at creating a perfect balance for amenities. Still, no one can prepare you for the touch of a warm seat in the bathroom, but I had been warned.

Outside by the fire, the light has turned beautiful gold as the sun awakens with me in the morning. The fire dances it tells stories of time immemorial, and I get to lose myself in the 'treehouse' if only for a few more hours. Time flies when you are present or in enjoyment. Before I am ready to say goodbye, it is time to departure what has been a welcome and restful reprieve.

The day's appointments have me traveling into the center of the valley, and they include Turnbull, Stag's Leap Cellars, and Jarvis. Ending the day at the caves is not only exciting but also a welcome change in scenery. The first stop is a beautiful farm setting complete with red truck, and landscape that is 'too perfect' for an actual farm. My host is a gentleman who escaped the rat race and went from one of the most stressful jobs in the market, a sales rep for the Bay Area. To a relaxing home on a lake entertaining people like me for a job.

Wine has a way to give you a peek into the future, and after a couple of bottles of water and the first tastings, I am in desperate need of a bathroom break. My prayers are answered rather quickly. Through a creaking door, I find a restored early turn of the XX century bathroom complete with wooden covers and chain. While describing toilets has never been my intention, the stark difference between the Japanese technological marvel and the refurbished classic, inspires a laugh.

The next stop ends up delivering some beautiful vistas and some embarrassing stories. Napa's wineries, whose names have become incredibly recognizable, generally draw inspiration from the natural landmarks that predated the area. Chateau Montelena is named after Mount Helena where it resides, its counterpart in the Judgement of Paris is Stag's Leap Cellars. However, thanks to a GPS input error, I will end up in the property of a similar name but not the one I made my appointment for.

The drive is beautiful, a winding split level road goes up the hill. Framed with glimmering aged trees, and the golden vineyards in the background leading to an old manor that could easily be used for one of Steinbeck's East of Eden estates on the Salinas Valley. The property is perfectly restored to its original grandeur, and a beautiful table is set for a group, despite knocking, it appears that no one is home.

Wine has a way to give you a peek into the future, and after a couple of bottles of water and the first tastings, I am in desperate need of a bathroom break. My prayers are answered rather quickly. Through a creaking door, I find a restored early turn of the XX century bathroom complete with wooden covers and chain. While describing toilets has never been my intention, the stark difference between the Japanese technological marvel and the refurbished classic, inspires a laugh.

Outside, I am embarrassingly informed that I am: a) at the wrong place and b) now incredibly late for my appointment. The beautiful winding road turns into a gangster chase down the way into the Silverado trail and a mile to the actual Stag's Leap Cellars. A lady waits patiently hands crossed in front of her skirt. After brief introductions and apologies, all is restored to its original plans.

The second day is turning both into an architectural tour as well as wine one. The facility is modern with a touch of Spanish flair that one would expect more from Gaudi's Barcelona than Napa. There are even some carved rock arches on the way to the caves that remind me of Parque Guell. As if my new host could read my mind, she explains that the 'Spanish architect' that designed the estate was very interested in merging the natural landscape with the inside of the facility. Making him a clear disciple of Gaudi's work.

I was expecting to see one set of caves, yet it appears I will be presented with two. Stags Leap Cellars has a working cave system that is fully climatized, making it more an architectural feature than a natural cooler for the wine. Inside the detail and passions of the original winemakers merge with a beautiful pendulum display complete with a constellation ceiling. Astronomy was the third passion of the original owner after family and wine, I am told.

With some time in between appointments, I make my second checking at the Westin's Verasa in Napa Town. The town is much more developed than sleepy St. Helena, complete with the wine train station, and a full food court collective that although casual delivers some of the best bites in town, it becomes apparent that Napa is big business for the area as a tourist destination.to describe the effort and expertise that each of the hosts has shared with me.

Back at the main facility, which resembles the lobby of a planetarium or museum, floor to ceiling glass walls overlooking the vineyard. The wines prove to be delightful, and the appreciation of the host for storytelling bonds the experience. Departing the winery, I am shown the original letters from the academy in Paris, notifying the winery they have won the blind tasting complete with score sheets. Napa will never be the same after those letters.

With some time in between appointments, I make my second checking at the Westin's Verasa in Napa Town. The town is much more developed than sleepy St. Helena, complete with the wine train station, and a full food court collective that although casual delivers some of the best bites in town, it becomes apparent that Napa is big business for the area as a tourist destination.

The day will end at Jarvis, well known for its waterfall graves and its penchant for classic French winemaking tradition. It golden arched metal doors open like the Willie Wonka factory but wine instead of chocolate awaits. The facility is impressive, and yet the production of the winery is small and more boutique-like. A hand-operated bottling station contrast with the grand ballroom, where the Jarvis family hosts one of the most coveted invitations of the year. Jarvis wines are an expression of excellence when no corners are cut to compromise the final product.

The day will end with a grocery run, as the new accommodations come included with a kitchen, and the binging of eating out is taking a toll. It is interesting to see where the 'other' residents of Napa, those that farm, pick and process the wine, or those who attend the lifestyle of its small yet lavish elite shop. Despite temptation for a food truck outside, I decided to take my protein smoothies and head back to my own reality, which appears to lay somewhere in between.

The next and last day on the valley, includes Far Niente, Opus One, and Jordan. While first and last have a primary and approachable philosophy to wine. Opus is perhaps the flagship to the luxury sector of the wine experience.

At Far Niente, atop a circular staircase, I private tasting and pairing is delivered to the views of the state and the winery in a quiet setting. The tour of the facility once again reminds me that Napa is built on American Ingenuity. Even though the majority of wineries are owned or started by wealthy owners. The humble beginnings in the wine tradition are unmistakable as it is their ingenuity when building their enterprises.

A short drive from Far Niente, the entire Opus One facility appears to be under construction. Still, one would never know that from the facade and the line of luxury vehicles waiting at the valet. Opus one is the creation of two of the best and most recognizable names in wine history, the Baron de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. It is supposed to be the best of old-world tradition and new world raw materials and technology. No expense is spared neither in its facility nor its production, and with visitors dropping checks in the 1000s for 'souvenirs,' no one can call the costs excessive. Opus one is beautiful, and perhaps just victims of their own success. Their wines are too often drunk way before its prime, and the winery has decided to speed up releases and production. Still, who can blame them, with the cost per bottle they command, I would be hard-pressed to find someone not follow their model.

The last stop takes me out of Napa and into the top of Sonoma County. Jordan is a winery built from a Colorado family that made their money in oil. It is modeled after a traditional French estate, and it was one of the first power players in Sonoma County after real estate became scarce in Napa. An actual host of mountain hospitality is present in both the tasting and the tour, which I share with a host from Colorado and a hotelier and his second wife from Vail. A quick connection since we all can relate to the mountain.

With the last sip and out the hidden library doors that lead us to our tasting room, I bid farewell to one of the most recognizable and prestigious regions of American wine country. The drive back to Petaluma is filled with memories and humbling experiences. To be given the opportunity, and to be present for it are gifts I will likely never forget.